I love the holidays. All of my senses tingle from the twinkling lights and decorations to the sounds of carols playing in every store. Delicious smells of holiday favorites are wafting through the air. And of course, there are all the festive get-togethers with family and friends. It is such a magical time of year and a perfect time to create family memories.
Yet for all that I find magical about the season, a child with special needs may find those very same things assaulting their senses making it difficult for them to enjoy. For children with sensory issues, an abundance of noise may overload their senses; the overstimulation of large crowds may cause anxiety. For almost anyone, changes in diet from all the holiday goodies can cause physical distress; changes in routines and sleep can wreak havoc for those who need more structure in their lives.
So how do you hold onto the magic of the season all while creating those special family memories?
• Manage expectations. As parents, we sometimes get caught up in wanting to include our children in everything that the season offers. But some things can be more important to us than they are to our children. Reassess what is really important to you. If you like holiday cookie baking but it is too much for your child to focus on, set aside some time to just decorate together. It doesn't matter whether they decorate two cookies or a dozen, the memory you create will be a pleasant one for both of you.
Even under the best of circumstances family members and friends can have unrealistic expectations. While their intentions may be to create wonderful holiday memories, they may need a friendly reminder of what works best for your child. Ask what the plans are for the evening so you can be prepared. Let them know that you may need some quiet time with your child when it gets too hectic. Always be sure there is somewhere you and your child can go if the noise and intensity increases. Do something relaxing to get centered. Remind family and friends of any food allergies or sensitivities and be prepared with your own snacks whenever possible.
• Pick and choose your traditions. Give yourself permission to not join in on every family get-together or holiday event. Think about what surroundings will work best for your family. Perhaps forgoing the formal sit-down dinner for the more casual party where your child can move around and not feel restricted is better. If too much stimulation is problematic, choose smaller gatherings.
A visit to Santa sounds like fun but it can mean long lines, crowded malls and pressure to get through the coveted visit to keep that line moving. If a visit to Santa is a must, check with your local park district or mall. Many of them are hosting special needs nights that offer a gentler version of the traditional visit. They can provide longer time with Santa and activities during the wait to help keep everyone occupied and happy. Reservations may be required.
If the mall is the only option, be sure to ask if there is a day or time that seems to be less crowded. Ahead of your visit prepare a simple note for Santa and his elf. Have your child's name and age on a piece of paper, indicate that he or she has a disability, and include a few things that your child might like Santa to bring him or her.
• Take time for yourself. Not only is it all right to celebrate without your children, it can be re-energizing. Let's face it, if mom and dad are happy and stress-free they can handle whatever the holidays throw at them.
• Stay flexible. Remember the holidays are all about family togetherness and creating memories. Sometimes the best memories are not the ones we plan but rather the ones that just happen.
I invite you to share your thoughts on this topic as well as others at our blog at wdsra.com. Parents are encouraged to speak directly to other parents, share thoughts, offer personal stories, and educate each other on topics that affect them in their everyday life.
• Sherry Manschot is the marketing/public relations manager at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. She leads a parent network of special needs families at WDSRA. Manschot can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about WDSRA can be found at wdsra.com.